Text: Luke 3:1-22
We were in Indiana with my family over the holidays. We had a great time, and the group keeps growing. This time, it was my parents, their three children and spouses, 7 grandchildren, and 3 girlfriends and boyfriends. I looked at the group of grandchildren – Zoe is the oldest – and realized that they are mostly young adults now. I know this did not just happen overnight, but for some reason this was a revelation. I was proud of all of them, but I also felt really old.
They grow up quickly, don’t they? Take Jesus. Two weeks ago, he was a baby, born in Bethlehem, and then last week an infant fleeing with his family to Egypt. Here we are one week later, and he is 30 years old. Time flies.
We will be in the book of Luke for the next couple of months, through Easter. Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. Then he tells about the birth of Jesus and his presentation at the temple. There is a story of a visit to Jerusalem and Jesus at the temple when he was 12 years old. And then – boom – he is all grown up.
Which brings us to our scripture for today, focusing mainly on the ministry of John the Baptist. It is very interesting the way it all starts. “In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of Ituria and Trachonitis, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene (which is probably not the one in Texas), during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”
This is interesting because in the first place, it is reminiscent of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth. “A decree when out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered; this was when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke sets things in historical perspective. Here, he mentions the emperor and various rulers, the chief political and religious leaders, and then he says the Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah. In the wilderness. It is quite a contrast. You have these rulers, powerful and privileged people, but the Word of God comes to John, this wild man, out in the wilderness.
John preaches repentance, he tells the crowds who come out to the wilderness to hear him that they have to change. And he does not coddle them, doesn’t try to make them feel good about themselves. He calls them a “brood of vipers.” John plays hardball, but amazingly, people come out to hear him. And they really do want to change. Maybe they come out to hear him because they really want to change.
So they ask, what do we do? And this again is interesting because while John’s message sounds really severe, what he asks is actually pretty basic. If you are a tax collector, don’t cheat. If you are a soldier, don’t extort. OK, sounds reasonable. He says, if you have two coats, share one. If you have food to share, share it with people in need. John comes across as this radical rabble-rouser, but in a way, he is just asking people to do the right thing, to do what the law and the prophets had always asked of people.
Yet for some reason, simply treating others fairly and compassionately was hard, and it always has been. What John was asking sounds simple enough, but if everyone followed it, it really would be radical.
And in fact, it came across as so revolutionary that people flocked to the wilderness to hear it, and were baptized as a sign of their repentance. John just had this vibe about him, and folks started to wonder if he was the messiah. John says, “No, one greater than me is coming; I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals. I am baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit.” And then he makes another very interesting statement. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
What is this about? A winnowing fork? Most of us wouldn’t know a winnowing fork from a salad fork. Or a tuning fork. Or a fork in the road.
I have to confess to not having a lot of knowledge of farming. Growing up, there was a cornfield across the road from us, but we lived in the country the way the Shiremans live in the country. You can live next to a cornfield and still be in a subdivision. Actually, when I was in grade school, the people across the road had a couple of donkeys on their small acreage just for fun, and they would often hee-haw when we were out waiting at the bus stop. (I mean the donkeys would hee-haw, not the neighbors across the road.) But this background does not make me an authority on winnowing forks.
I would guess, however, that even those who farm are not necessarily familiar with winnowing forks. Here’s the way it worked: before grain was ground for flour, it needed to be as clean as possible. After harvesting and threshing, it contained a lot of chaff – pieces of stalk, the outer husks of the grain, and other stuff you did not want in your bread. To winnow, you might take a basket of grain and go outside on a windy day and pour it into another basket. In doing so, the chaff would be blown away while the heavier grain would fall into the basket.
Another method would be to use a winnowing fork. After grain had been beaten out of the husks, or threshed, you would have grain on the floor mixed with chaff. You would take the winnowing fork and throw the grain into the air, allowing the chaff to be blown away.
The question, of course, is what John meant by this image of Jesus with a winnowing fork. Clearly it is an image of judgment, of separating the wheat from the chaff. But Jesus did not treat people as chaff to be discarded. He seemed to have a special concern for those who looked upon as outcasts – those who might have been thought of as “mere chaff” by others.
I think that John’s point here has to do with the choices we all have to make. He is talking about our lives, about Jesus baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and then he goes immediately to the winnowing fork, separating the wheat from the chaff. Maybe this has to do with the chaff in our own lives and the choices we all have to make about what to hold on to and what to leave behind and about how Jesus helps us to make those kinds of choices – how Jesus works in us to bring about change in our lives.
The decisions we make about who we are, about the life we will live, really matter. This was the attraction of John. People knew that the way they lived their lives mattered a great deal, and they came to him in the wilderness because they wanted to live a different way.
The choices set before us each day are not always big and dramatic. But they are real. In the face of wrongdoing, we can turn a blind eye or we can speak up. When a friend is in need, we can offer to help or we can justify our inaction by telling ourselves we are too busy and too extended. We can choose to be kind or impatient. We can choose to hang on to what we have or share with others. We can choose to risk being compassionate, risk investing in the lives of others, or we can hold back. We can pursue success or popularity or wealth or possessions or we can make our lives about relationships, about making a difference, about building up the life of the community.
Just as John envisioned Jesus separating wheat and chaff with a winnowing fork, we have choices to make about the good and the bad, wheat and chaff. We have to decide. And this deciding is not a once-and-for all matter as much as it is a constantly renewing cycle, a daily calling. Living as a follower of Jesus means deciding how to faithfully respond to what is before us today. It means making faithful choices.
John called for such decisions, and it was an offense to Herod. He had John put in prison for a time, and in the end it cost John his life. But Jesus himself understood that we have a choice to make, and he chose to come to the waters of baptism. He chose to identify with John’s movement, and more than that, he chose to identify with all of the people who came to John – people with needs, people with struggles, people wanting to repent and turn their lives around. Jesus called people to make choices, and he himself made such a choice.
In humility, he submitted to John’s baptism. Luke reports very little of the actual baptism and does not even mention John by name, but he reports that after the baptism, there is a voice from heaven saying, ”You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” For Jesus, his baptism was an experience of affirmation of his identity and calling. It says to us that Jesus could not have done what he did apart from God’s grace and power and love.
For us, our baptism represents the choice we have made to follow Christ. It represents repentance and trust and faith and is an experience of God’s grace. In our baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter…you are my beloved son.”
David Lose, one of my professors who is now a seminary president in Philadelphia, writes,
…Baptism… provides [us] a name – Beloved – and with that name, an identity – child of God, one to whom God is unfailingly committed. And that name and identity has never been more important.Lose went on to reference a recent study at Duke University. Research by a marketing professor there and colleagues in New York and Tel Aviv showed that especially for those who are not deeply religious, brands are a form of self-expression and a token of self-worth, just like symbolic expressions of one’s faith. One’s commitment to a brand of clothing or automobiles or coffee of whatever can have an almost religious-like dimension. It can be a big part of who we are.
We are at a time and place where so many would like to identify and define us by many, many names: Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list goes on. Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.
For Jesus, baptism was about identity, and it is for us as well. Identity is something that can be slippery and something we may struggle with at times. And identity can be constantly changing. I read the Northcrester, the newsletter from Northcrest, a couple of days ago, and it included a poem by Lorene Hoover that gets at the issue of identity. Lorene is in Arizona, but I called her and asked if it would be OK to read her poem. And she said yes.
I began life as the new Marshall babyWe play many roles, and the whole matter of identity can be hard to pin down. It is not that the various roles we play are unimportant – they can be very important. But we need to know that deep within us, at the heart of it all, our primary identity is “child of God.” And in baptism, God names us and continues to name us as “beloved.”
my brothers’ little sister until my sister was born.
Then I became one of the look-alike
name-alike Marshall girls.
Few could tell which was which.
In high school I was one of the country kids.
At a Kansas college I could at last be ME
in class, in choir, on the news staff—
except when I was Mary’s roommate
or one of the Iowa kids.
On my first job I was the new office girl
until I tired of writing down words of six male bosses.
That sent me to college again
to become some kid’s teacher.
Later I was my husband’s wife
my children’s mother.
Now I am only ME writing to be me
except when I’m my grandchildren’s “Nana”
one of those old people at Northcrest
except when I’m an Arizona “snow bird”
At family sing-a-longs
I am again one of the Marshall girls
a writer, writing to be ME.
These other names and affiliations may describe us, but they do not define us. At the core, we are beloved children of God.
As Christians, we are called to live out our baptism, to live out our identity as a beloved child of God, by following in Jesus’ ways, by continuing his ministry on this earth. And as John reminds us, this can involve making choices. Not just between the good and the bad, which may not be so difficult, but between the important and the merely urgent, between the good and the best. We may have to learn to separate those things that are attractive but fleeting from that which is solid and lasting. We have to learn to separate those core beliefs and values and commitments that matter most from those more peripheral matters that are not so important and on which we sometimes need to just agree to disagree.
The choices facing us are not always easy. But in all of our decision-making, we live in God’s grace. In those times when the way does not seem so clear, we can rest in knowing that God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child.” At the root of it all, this is who we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.